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The Princeton History of Modern Ireland

Richard Bourke & Ian McBride (Eds)
Publisher
Princeton University Press
Price
£30.95
ISBN
9780691154060
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From the Introduction by Richard Bourke

This volume provides an account of modern Irish history from the sixteenth to the twenty-first century. Its approach is both thematic and chronological in nature. Part 1 contains six overarching narrative chap­ters dealing with the main developments in society and politics throughout the period covered by the book. The aim here is to present readers with an up-to-date rendition of the course of Irish history. Part 2 then focuses on topics and themes that played a peculiarly important role in the shaping of that trajectory. These chapters range from exercises in intellectual, cultural, and literary history to analyses of formatively significant subjects like religion, nationalism, empire, and gender. The aim of the volume is to make available the necessary ingredients for an understanding of Irish history together with a range of insights on pivotal issues and key controversies.

The contributors to this collection constitute a new generation of historians whose work seeks to build on the achievements of their predecessors. Historiog­raphy in Ireland after the Second World War was devoted to advancing specialized research, but it can also be seen in part as a reaction against prevailing popular assumptions rather than a revision of a body of scholarly writing.1 In this last guise it aimed to free history from the influence of fable and polemic.2 Its main achieve­ment was the accumulation of a sizable body of research that enriched the picture of the Irish past by systematically studying available evidence and archives. Look­ing back after a quarter century of progress in that direction, T. W Moody was eager to draw attention to "unprecedented advances in specialist research, in pro­fessional technique, in the organisation of historians and in the publication of special studies, source materials, bibliographies and aids to scholarship."3 Mem­bers of the succeeding generation of historians were still more focused in their ob­jectives. Writing in the shadow of the Troubles in Northern Ireland after 1968 and then the accession of the Republic of Ireland to the European Economic Commu­nity in 1973, historians from the 1970s through to the 1990s were in general terms more withering in their approach to national traditions. Above all, skepti­cism about the legitimating narratives that underpinned the establishment of the two jurisdictions on the island oflreland became pervasive. The principal targets here were the revolutionary ideologies employed to legitimize nationalist and unionist rebellion. Both the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland have their roots in popular militancy. The last generation of historians sought to question the justification for this political stance. This could lend their writing a degree of urgency as well as a didactic tone. At times the temptation was to blame rather than explain what was not approved. This volume sets about incorporating the in­sights of earlier scholarship while moving beyond the more admonitory approach sometimes adopted by precursors.

Few, if any, states have been established by a formal "contract," whereby their populations consented in an orderly way to their formation. Most commonly they have been a product of conquest or revolution. This general observation applies to India and Mexico, as well as to America and France. Much like these last two countries, contemporary Ireland has its origins in revolutionary change, and his­torians are obliged to account for the process of transition. Recounting major moments of national upheaval, like 1776—1787 in America or 1789—1799 in France, usually involves processes of evaluation as well as reconstruction. Since histori­ans habitually revise their predecessors, they tend to reassess earlier evaluations as they embark on new attempts at reconstruction. In the American, French, and Irish cases, this commonly takes the form of new perspectives on the aims and achievements of the revolutionary generation. Yet it is soon found that this fresh vantage affects perceptions of the antecedent past, meaning the longer history preceding the revolution itself. The reason for this seems clear: revolutions have to justify themselves in relation to their past, and so a reappraisal of a revolution entails a revision of its past. The immediate heirs of the Irish revolutionary gen­eration of 1912—1923 constructed a past that pointed to the legitimacy of their revolution based on two principles: the right to self-determination on the one hand, and the entitlement to assert that right by force of arms on the other. Both principles explicitly depended on one another, because the justification for the resort to violence was taken to follow from the prior existence of a self-determining people.